Wednesday, 10 February 2010

We, Her Majesty's Petitioners...

At the urging of one of my most civically-conscientious partners in blogging, I have decided to go a-petitioning. I'm rather excited, actually: serving a petition upon the House is about to be only the second gesture of quaint Parliamentary militancy I shall have had the pleasure of making in my forty-one years—the first being a quixotic pursuit of an Ottawa riding in 2006 that saw me defeated right royally, but not before fully enjoying the thrill of calling Stephen Harper an "anti-Confederation plutocrat” and a “walking abortifacient unfit to serve week-old egg salad sandwiches at a soup kitchen" live on local television (I ran on the issues, you see).

Now, I expect this venture to be substantially more successful than the first, if only because a "successful" petition is merely one that actually gets read by its sponsoring Member of Parliament whilst the walls of the House dully vibrate to the yawns of drowsy hacks and the fingering of Blackberries. As much as I would love to see this petition lead to the meaningful change it urges, it is not the successful petition that brings change, unfortunately; only the miraculous petition does that. Although divine intervention is not completely out of the question here (I suppose I deserve it as much as the next sinner), I shall be happy enough just to see the document brought into the House and read into the record; if it sparks a sympathetic flame in someone who wields meaningful power or influence along the way, all the better.

The petition is inspired by our recent ruminations concerning the constitutionally absurd status of the Governor General's office. It proposes changes that seek to make the office something more than a laughable post-colonial excrescence. I'm soliciting opinions from you, my readers—stalwart yeomen of the realm, all—from whom I know to expect critiques both insightful and trenchant. Note that I have already been taken to task over two things—the provocative tone of the first "Whereas" and my attempt to work an electoral feature into the selection process. I'm still quite committed to both of those features, but I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise if my critic’s impressions are fortified by others.

And so, without further ado, here we go.


------------------------------------------------------


WHEREAS Canadian prime ministers routinely violate constitutional conventions in pursuit of purely partisan objectives,

And

WHEREAS the impunity with which those violations are committed brings the authority, credibility and legitimacy of our entire constitutional system into question,

And

WHEREAS it is the responsibility of the office of the Governor General to sustain the integrity of our constitution and check prime ministerial attempts to violate its established and authoritative conventions,

And

WHEREAS our Governors General, being political appointees with little if any grounding in legal scholarship, lack the necessary executive legitimacy required to impose constitutionally legitimate checks upon our elected governments,


BE IT RESOLVED THAT

We the undersigned do desire that the Canadian Parliament establish by statute the following changes to the process by which our Governors General are appointed. We desire the statute to mandate that:

1) a committee of Parliament be struck six months before the end of the incumbent Governor General’s term with the authority to perform a candidate search and to formulate a short list of qualified candidates;

2) the shortlist be restricted to candidates who satisfy a set of specific criteria, including a demonstrated personal history free of overt or active partisanship and an objectively ascertainable expertise in constitutional scholarship (or a satisfyingly equivalent level of legal training);

3) the committee be required to select three names from their shortlist and offer those names on a national ballot in order that the candidates be subject to a national vote;

4) that the prime minister offer for the Crown’s approval the name of one of the three ballot candidates at the conclusion of the election, it being understood that the prime minister is expected to select the candidate who received a plurality of the national vote while not being absolutely required to do so.

35 comments:

Organic Tory said...

Is this not the thin end of the wedge? If the people select a vice-regal candidate from a shortlist of three, they will not take kindly to the prime minister choosing an alternative from the remaining two contenders; more likely, the people will find the prime minister's role to be superfluous at best, anti-democratic at worst.

More to the point, if the Governor General can be selected by a popular vote, the very position of the Crown is jeopardised, as impartiality and neutrality—two of the most forceful arguments for hereditary constitutional monarchy—are undermined.

If the people can choose their vice-regent, what impediments stand in the way of choosing their Head of State? Tradition and historical consciousness are thin on the ground in Canada’s contemporary political climate.

As invidious as the present arrangement of selection has proved of late, most attempts to curry favour with critics are the slippery slope to republicanism. Better to expect more from our Cabinet Government system, and to punish at the ballot box those parties that abuse our trust and confidence.

Tomm said...

I assume that you are doing this to make mischief.

Having a PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE select three candidates without partisan links (hee,hee). In this minority parliament I see Buzz Hargrove, Maude Barlowe and a TV announcer being our three likely choices. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. Except of course that they all need to be constitutional/legal beagles. What's with that clause?

Also check fro typose before you submit.

Shiner said...

Having a PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE select three candidates without partisan links (hee,hee).

Why not let the Senate figure it out then? Under the present system one would think they would be less likely to pick a hack.

Peter Burnet said...

You want a national popular vote among three candidates with an objectively ascertainable expertise in constitutional scholarship?

I can just imagine the attack ads: "Professor Himpeldorpher's post-doctoral thesis argued that the Supreme Court erred in its 1952 decision in The Prince Edward Island Potato Marketing Board v. Willis. Is this the kind of man we want to entrust our children's royal perogative to?

Sir Francis said...

...more likely, the people will find the prime minister's role to be superfluous at best...

In even the most self-consciously democratic among the nations, people will tolerate the imposition of a relatively arbitrary decision upon the expressed popular will. Look at how quiescently Americans accepted having one of their elections decided by the Supreme Court.

...if the Governor General can be selected by a popular vote, the very position of the Crown is jeopardised...

To be precise, the Governor General will be selected by the House committee. Popular choice will be constrained by choices already made. This is not direct democracy.

...impartiality and neutrality—two of the most forceful arguments for hereditary constitutional monarchy—are undermined.

I'm not sure I follow. Surely, impartiality and neutrality are most gravely undermined when the appointment is solely in the gift of the prime minister. With the process I advocate, the Governor General is not beholden to the leader of a particular party. He or she is appointed thanks to the endorsement of a faceless committee and, later, of a faceless plurality. I hardly see the threat you speak of.

If the people can choose their vice-regent, what impediments stand in the way of choosing their Head of State?

You've inverted the values. It's precisely because we're choosing only the vice-regent that the status and security of our head of state is not threatened.

You're assuming that the Queen and the Governor General are equivalent agents, so that, in choosing the latter, we are effectively choosing the former. In fact, the two creatures are radically different (as the constitutionally sane among us must always remind our fellow Canadians). Choosing the representative does not undermine the legitimacy of what he or she represents, so long as that choice is strictly conditioned by what the Crown itself requires; this is what the selection criteria and the House committee's insistence upon them is meant to achieve.

In other words, the Crown will select a few candidates that it finds satisfying, and the people will add their voice to a decision that has largely already been made. Canada is meant to be a monarchical democracy, after all.

Sir Francis said...

I assume that you are doing this to make mischief.

That's me: Canada's mischief-maker in chief! And, really, is there anything more mischief-making than an attempt to arrest our constitutional dry-rot? It's more mischievous even than throwing Molotov cocktails at G-20 summits, and so much more fun!

In this minority parliament I see Buzz Hargrove, Maude Barlowe[sic] and a TV announcer being our three likely choices.

Yes, having our Parliamentary representatives act of our behalf really sucks, eh, Tomm? That's the problem with our system: the representatives we elect get to represent us far too often. That really needs to change.

As for your strictures against "TV announcers", I don't recall you expressing much dismay when Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy were front-end-loaded into the Senate by your rotund hero.

The Lost and Found Department just called, Tomm: somebody brought in the "populism" you dropped (or threw) on the ground some time ago. You might want to wash it before you wear it again.

Also check fro typose before you submit.

Thanks for alerting me to my first typo in almost two years of blogging. That the grammatical alarm came from you is, well...rather ironic, no?

Sir Francis said...

Why not let the Senate figure it out then?

I thought of having the Senate handle it. Given the "democratic deficit" that already inheres in the Governor General's office (as far as most Canadians are concerned), I thought it wise to hand the selection process over to a body of elected officials.

Sir Francis said...

I can just imagine the attack ads...

Speaking of mischief-making!

Naturally, there would be no campaigns during the vote—just three names. Sorry to disappoint.

Tomm said...

Sir Francis,

It is certainly ironic that it would be me to point out the one typo in two years. I also liked that touch (which explains my comment).

The parliamentary committee's dominated by the opposition members have spent 4 years trying to embarrass the present government. The government member's have spent 4 years trying to frustrate the opposition members. So linking this with "populism" is a bit of a stretch. It is also a bit of a stretch to expect Karen Redmond, Paul Dewar, any BQ MP, or Dean Del Mastro being anything but partisan in their deliberations.

But let's seriously consider your proposal. Assuming it works the way you envision, we will likely end up with a distinguished University prof or retired judge as our rep.

This individual does two things. Firstly, they provide a check on the office of the PM. The use of prorogation or election calls would come under significantly more scrutiny. These things will allow the Parliament to leverage a minority PM and quietly force the PM to respect the will of Parliament more than they have done recently. What would be the result in a majority parliament? How powerful is this person?

The second thing the individual does is almost Presidential in effect. Like the workings of a Republican system. An evolution away from the Queen.

Is that what you see occurring?

Organic Tory said...

Thanks for your reflexions; a few rejoinders in return:

In a country where those in favour of constitutional monarchy rarely register above 50 percent of the population, introducing any element of popular will is an invitation for republican sentiments, as impediments meant to stem this tide (such as you suggest) will doubtless be overwhelmed. Those of this anti-monarchical persuasion will not be stymied by distinctions between vice-regent and the Crown proper—as I am not, taking the wider perspective—when their objective is a republican form of government. It is naïve to think that a vote for the former will not encourage and entice a vote for the latter—that is, a new constitutional arrangement for the Head of State.

To play devil’s advocate: If a committee is to recommend three candidates—and if your objective is not direct democracy—why not let the House of Commons choose amongst them, thereby allowing the people’s representatives to recommend to Her Majesty her viceroy, removing this privilege from the exclusive purview of the prime minister?

Of course, were votes cast along party lines, the likelihood that a governor general would one day ‘front’ a government that was inimical to his/her original selection cannot be discounted. Thus are impartiality and neutrality put at risk by the politicisation of the process. MPs may not like present or past incumbents, but at least their dislike is shrouded by parliamentary convention.

Again, the present selection of HM’s representative is not perfect—particularly when the absence of constitutional experience and gravitas are weighed in—but does the reform suggested take due consideration of the machinations that will be inflicted upon it by opponents of Canada’s constitutional monarchy?

I fear that any attempt to reform the institution of the Canadian Crown will inevitably lead to its demise.

Sir Francis said...

The parliamentary committee's[sic] dominated by the opposition members have spent 4 years trying to embarrass the present government.

Yes, it has been terribly inconsiderate of the Opposition to try to embarrass the government. When the Alliance/Conservatives were in opposition, they did everything they could to bolster the government's self-esteem. Rob Anders was known to send lollipops to Paul Martin whenever the poor man looked dispirited.

Tomm, the House selection committee will need to follow the statute, which will clearly call for non-partisan candidates: politicising this process will be impossible, no matter how much the committee members shall wish to do so.

What would be the result in a majority parliament?

The Governor General's scope of responsibility as regards a majority government is precisely what it is as regards a minority. That will not change under the regime I'm advocating.

For instance, arbitrary requests for dissolution and prorogation shall be refused. Thus, the cynical likes of Harper would be frustrated, as would the cynical likes of Chrétien—a man who routinely threatened snap (i.e. arbitrary) elections in order to keep his caucus in line.

The second thing the individual does is almost Presidential in effect.

Not at all. The Governor General would not even be in a party (much less be the leader of one) and would have nothing whatever to do with the content of or deliberations regarding legislation before the House. He’ll be as far from an American president as from an Ottoman pasha.

Sir Francis said...

...introducing any element of popular will is an invitation for republican sentiments...

I understand and share your concern. I wonder if historical precedent may not suggest that our worries are needless, though. I'm thinking particularly of the constitutional settlements of 1689-1701. Though a sentimental (and philosophical) Jacobite, I am fully prepared to accept that such a settlement was both inevitable and necessary given the circumstances and that whatever of value was lost in the event was redeemed by the retention of a monarchical system that might have been totally destroyed if no settlement had been reached. Canada may well be in a similar position now—of needing both a reconfirmation of its basic monarchical essence and a re-envisioning of the public's relationship to that essence.

It is naïve to think that a vote for the former will not encourage and entice a vote for the latter...

I made precisely that argument last month. Since then, I've become more comfortable with an electoral element in the selection process so long as the public's options are tightly circumscribed by the will of the Crown itself (i.e. the enabling statute). I'm not known as a Pollyanna, but I actually do think most people can (and will) distinguish between the nature of the monarch and that of his or her representative.

Take the current situation, for example: few Canadians are demanding that the prime minister be allowed to choose his own King or Queen simply because he can choose the Governor General. Nor do I anticipate that many Canadians shall demand to elect their heads of state merely because they've been afforded an extremely limited role in the selection of the vice-regents.

...why not let the House of Commons choose amongst them...?

Conventionally, the monarch selects the Governor General based on the prime minister's advice, not the House's. I wish to keep that convention, while placing restrictions on the kinds of candidates the prime minister is free to consider.

...the likelihood that a governor general would one day ‘front’ a government that was inimical to his/her original selection cannot be discounted...

True. That kind of thing happens now, of course. It would happen less often if superannuated politicians were barred from the office. I would prefer that my Governors General face the governments over which they need to preside without the baggage of having been, say, an NDP premier of Manitoba or a fund raiser for the Conservative Party. As I said to Tomm, it would be extremely difficult for committee members to politicise the selection of candidates who are under consideration precisely because they are non-partisan.

I fear that any attempt to reform the institution of the Canadian Crown will inevitably lead to its demise.

Alas, change is inevitable. What we want is development, rather then revolution—reformation, rather than deformation.

I still think my proposal represents a developmental step rather than a revolutionary one. Let me ask this: can our system absorb any change without collapsing into republicanism? If not, shall we need to admit that constitutional development is no longer possible for us—in other words, that our civic life has effectively become a dead language?

Tomm said...

Sir Francis,

We will be "electing" one powerful GG. Someone who will be the equal of the PM in constitutional matters. You would know better than I...

Is this person going to develop a following? Have a large budget? office?

I too think this is a move toward republicanism.

SK said...

As SF's partner in crime in this endeavour...

Tomm, to answer your question, we are not seeking to grant the GG any more authority than has already been constitutionally granted. The objective is to move the GG out from under the thumb of the PM and make the GG accountable to Parliament. That's why the focus of the petition is on the selection process for the office of GG.

The added impetus of electing is to endear the role to the general public. This is the one section SF and I are at odds over (and why he chose to debate it publicly here, we are seeking others input.)

If the GG starts feeling his/her oats and starts exercising broad powers that the people or parliament do not feel are acceptable, the GG can still be removed. That's the check on the GG.

Sir Francis said...

We will be "electing" one powerful GG.

Let's make this easy, Tomm.

Name me one "power" that Governors General will get to use under my scheme that they do not already have at their constitutional disposal.

Tomm said...

Sir Francis,

The more I think about this the more I'm convinced that your petition, if passed, would pave the way for an activist GG that would eventually challenge the authority of Parliament. A PM having to dismiss a GG because they have blocked a request to prorogue or to call an election would lead to a crisis in this nation. This is where your petition would take us.

You are suggesting that we "elect" a GG for a multi-year term from an elite list of top hats. That this person could refuse any and all requests from the PM if they so chose just like the present GG could. The PM would then be forced to dismiss the GG causing the crisis.

Would I then be correct in saying that no bill could be passed into law until a new GG was "chosen" by the parliamentary committee and then "elected" in a federal election of some sort?

This is a bad idea.

SK said...

I think we can assume Tomm's signature will not be on the petition...

Sir Francis said...

A PM having to dismiss a GG because they have blocked a request to prorogue or to call an election would lead to a crisis in this nation.

No. It would not "lead to" anything, as it would never occur. Only a prime minister determined upon political suicide would dare request the dismissal of a Governor General whose only crime had been an uncompromising commitment to the constitution. Even Canada's greatest prime ministerial crank, Mackenzie King, wasn't stupid enough to try that kind of nonsense.

Look, I'm eager to have objective critics try to discover bugs in my scheme, but putting forward absurd hypotheticals is not helpful.

You are suggesting that we "elect" a GG for a multi-year term from an elite list of top hats.

"Top hats"? You mean the boardroom-mongers and clubhouse-rats of the National Citizen's Coalition or National Council on Business Issues clique? Billionaires, in other words?

Oh no, Tomm. Read the selection criteria. Oligarchs and plutocrats need not apply. We're looking for smart, non-partisan people who've committed their lives to scholarship rather than to the squirreling away of filthy lucre in offshore accounts. You would call such people "Taliban sympathisers", I suppose.

The PM would then be forced to dismiss the GG causing the crisis.

The PM would be "forced" to follow the law. He might choose, of course, to defy the constitution and watch his career fall into a well-deserved oblivion in consequence.

Would I then be correct in saying that no bill could be passed into law until a new GG was "chosen" by the parliamentary committee...

Would I be correct in inferring from your odd question that you're unaware of the need for every bill to receive Royal Assent before it becomes law?

Yes—obviously, we would need an incumbent Governor General in order for bills to pass, as we do now. Alternatively, we could just send all of our bills to Buckingham Palace for the Queen's signature, but that would be highly impractical, I think.

This is a bad idea.

That's an extremely encouraging thought. I'm clearly on the right track. Thanks for that, Tomm.

Sir Francis said...

I think we can assume Tomm's signature will not be on the petition.

The only petition Tomm would sign is one requesting that Parliament officially rename the tenth month "Harperober" in honour of Canada's greatest living statesman.

Peter Burnet said...

If it is so important for the GG to have extensive constitutional expertise, why isn't the Prince of Wales expected to study it intensively rather than learn to fly jet fighters? Is there something about Canada that makes executive abuse more likely than in the UK?

Your proposal does indeed sound American in one sense. You seem to be defining the GG as protector of an abstract called the constitution rather than the personal representive of the monarch, which is how our friends in the south reconcile their fierce loyalty to the nation with their chronic suspicion of government. Isn't it incongruous to give the personal representaive of a hereditary monarch a popular mandate the monarch herself doesn't have? The GG has no legal existence or power beyond what the Crown delegates, so what exactly are you hoping to solidify or bolster with an election? How should your dream GG, having decided on impeccable constutional grounds to flex his mandate and stand up to a bully PM, react when the PM consults Buckingham Palace, which instructs the GG to pipe down? Should he complain publically about royal interference?

I continue to be puzzled by this insistence on constitutional training because it really is a tiny part of the job, no matter how important in theory. It's hard to imagine a Peter Hogg sitting around Rideau Hall with his heavy legal tomes waiting eagerly for the kind of crisis that may come once in a generation, while his aide-de-camp reminds him the morning will bring yet another school opening followed by a reception for Quebec artists. Why can't the GG rely on advisors like the Queen does?

I think you are being idealistic to the point of naive to imagine that non-partisanship translates automatically or even predictably into reserve and caution. It certainly doesn't with judges. I am the last word in modesty and diffidence, but if I had a national popular mandate and editorials screaming at me to flex my muscles, I might very well get ideas above my station and decide the survival of civilization as we know it was in my hands. You are conflating political disposition with personality profile.

We all know what you think of Harper, but it's unwise to fashion constitutional arrangements to check just one PM you disdain. Why don't you just bring him down instead? I believe you have the votes.

SK said...

Peter,

If we dropped the popular election component and the constitutional expertise, is it more palatable?

I'm not sure if you are against the whole concept or just some of the details.

Sir Francis said...

Peter:


Early riser, are we? Do you read me before you shave, or am I strictly a post-ablution indulgence? ;)

...why isn't the Prince of Wales expected to study it intensively rather than learn to fly jet fighters?

...because the natures and constitutional statuses of the Canadian Governor General and the Prince of Wales are incommensurable.

Is there something about Canada that makes executive abuse more likely than in the UK?

You tell me. When was the last time a British PM created a constitutional "crisis" by way of a specious prorogation request?

You seem to be defining the GG as protector of an abstract[sic] called the constitution rather than the personal representive of the monarch...

No. To begin, the constitution is not an "abstraction" to me; it is a living, developing organism and thus requires living, conscientious stewardship. It so happens that the Governor General is a key component of that stewardship, and allowing that office to rot threatens the rest of the system with infective rot. It may already be too late; the 40% or so of Canadians who can't bring themselves to vote must think it is.

Moreover, the polarity you imply—between an active constitutional "protector" and a passive ornamental "representative"—presents a false dilemma: in fact, Canadian Governors General have traditionally been both of those things since the days of Simcoe (in fact, the office was conceived precisely in order to be both those things). That's why Julian Byng felt free to do what he did, at a time when the monarch he represented would never have stepped into British Parliamentary affairs so intrusively. It's also why it is the Governor General, not the monarch, who is (conventionally) the Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Our Governor General developed into an "activist" creature precisely because he was a representative of someone who dwelt across an ocean and who could not be quickly contacted during crises. Of course, modern communications have obviated the practical rationale for the Governor General's need to be activist, but post-war developments have not obviated (and have in fact made more urgent) the need for the kind of executive check that our system grants only to the Governor General—thus our quandary.

Isn't it incongruous to give the personal representaive[sic] of a hereditary monarch a popular mandate the monarch herself doesn't have?

I've asked that question to myself many times in writing here (haven't you been paying attention, Peter? ;)).

I felt (and still rather feel) as you do. I’m beginning to believe, though, that a Governor General elected through the process and under the restrictions I propose would not only be no threat to the Crown’s legitimacy, but might actually re-establish it. By electing a representative, you also affirm the legitimacy of that which he represents. When Americans elect a president, they elect him not in order that he may stand above and beyond the constitution, but that he should stand below it (ideally, of course: presidents violate the constitution routinely). Similarly, Canadians shall naturally wish to see their (somewhat) elected Governors General standing below the monarch—as they are her constitutional valets, as it were—in order that they may guard the integrity of a constitution of which they are the servants, not the masters.

At all events, I shall ask of you what I asked of Tomm: why do Canadians not demand that their prime minister acquire the right to choose his own monarch, if it is so important to Canadians that we choose our heads of state the same way we choose our Governors General?

Sir Francis said...

...it really is a tiny part of the job, no matter how important in theory.

It's a "tiny" part of a job that has required of its current incumbent two critical constitutional decisions in less than a year.

It's a "tiny" part of the job precisely because the modern Governor General is expected to do nothing (even in cases when doing something would be better for the country) whilst the system staggers dysfunctionally ever onwards. I want confident, qualified and quasi-elected Governors General to occupy the office precisely because I want them to do the job our constitution assumes they are willing and able to do.

I think you are being idealistic to the point of naive to imagine that non-partisanship translates...into reserve and caution.

As I've repeated many times here, my attitude is entirely pragmatic. I'm absolutely sure that non-partisanship does not endow its bearers with pure souls. I've been rather surprised to learn from a few of my commenters, though, that my wish to see a key constitutional office occupied by non-stuffed-shirts and non-hacks indicates hopeless adherence to a Utopian fantasy. I'm really just suggesting a system that, while necessarily flawed and open to distortion, meets constitutional objectives more satisfyingly than our present arbitrary pseudo-system (about which there is little that is truly systematic).

…it's unwise to fashion constitutional arrangements to check just one PM you disdain.

You clearly missed my unflattering appraisal of Jean Chrétien a few comments ago. Stephen Harper is hardly unique (and hardly extraordinarily egregious) in his perversion of constitutional conventions. Virtually all post-war prime ministers have gotten away with anti-constitutional felonies. And who can blame them for holding in contempt something which we refuse to take seriously?

I believe you have the votes.

Who is "you", white man?

I, Sir Francis, have precisely one vote, which I exercise every few years with depressed resignation, as we all do.

Peter Burnet said...

SF & SK

Although not anywhere nearly as troubled by the prorogation "crisis" as you (the first was perfectly defensible, the second a bully tactic that will be forgotten unless repeated), I have to say you make a very good case that the GG should not be beholden to the PM, and I salute you for it. Likewise for the case for non-partisanship. But, no, I can't see either a national election or such tight professional qualifications. Our unhappy history with referenda is because they tend to widen all the regional, linguistic and cultural fissures history dealt us, and I fear you would immediately be met with demands for rotations between English and French, "the West's turn", aboriginal candidates, yada, yada. Plus the democratic process has its own imperative and I don't see it predictably producing the kind of reserved and diffident GGs you seem to assume.

Also, SF, I think you are making a mistake common to the politically aware and engaged, which is to discount what you somewhat patronizingly call the "passive, ornamental" duties of the GG. As one who believes that a heavy investment in cross-country school summer exchange programmes may be more effective at checking a resurgence of Quebec nationalism than another round of constitutional talks, I think that role is extremely important, as it is with the monarch in the UK. I'm an admirer of Ms Jean because of what she represents, because of her grace and because she makes us all feel good about ourselves. They don't teach any of that in law school. The brilliant forsight of the Fathers of Confederation may play an important role in keeping the country united and successful, but so, equally, does the modest celebration of our uncommon shared decency.

Finally, there is a humourous side to your proposal, SF, that perhaps only Mercer could do justice to. On the one hand, you want candidates to have a rich exposure to the arcane world of constitutional law and history. On the other, you don't want them to do anything so crass or unseemly or American as to actually campaign for office. So, upon what basis would 95% of the population vote? Their abs?

Is there not some kind of behind-the-scenes, all-party mechanism that could be developed? Or is regional whining and rabid partisanship bred in our parliamentary bones?

SK said...

Peter, here's my version of the petition (SF and I are shopping competing versions around to friends and family to see which one people prefer)

WHEREAS the Government of Canada lacks a practical check on its
constitutional authority such that the authority, credibility and
legitimacy of our entire constitutional system is in question,

And

WHEREAS the office of the Governor General has the theoretical
responsibility to sustain the integrity of our constitution and check
prime ministerial attempts to violate its established and authoritative
conventions,

And

WHEREAS the position of Governor General has become entirely symbolic,
subject to the whims of the Prime Minister of Canada,

BE IT RESOLVED THAT

We the undersigned do desire that the Government of Canada change the
appointment process of the office of Governor General to ensure that the
Governor General is recognized as an agent of parliament, and not the
party forming the Government.
We desire the process to be set so that:
1) A committee of Parliament be struck that represents all recognized
parties holding seats in parliament.

2) No one party may hold a majority of 50% or more of the seats of the
committee

3) The committee will conduct a candidate search from which they will
formulate with majority agreement a short list (ideally no more than 3)
of qualified candidates;

4) That the prime minister offer for the Crown's approval the name of
one of the shortlisted candidates.

5) That the Governor General may only be removed before the end of the
set term after a full debate in parliament with the committee assenting
with a majority vote said removal.

Sir Francis said...

Our unhappy history with referenda is because they tend to widen all the regional, linguistic and cultural fissures history dealt us...

Our federal elections tend to widen the same fissures, but that doesn't stop us form holding them, fortunately.

I don't see it predictably producing the kind of reserved and diffident GGs you seem to assume.

"Reserved" and "diffident" be damned. I would settle for competent.

I'm an admirer of Ms Jean because of what she represents, because of her grace and because she makes us all feel good about ourselves.

A few questions:

1) What does Jean represent exactly?

2) Why is she admirable for representing something for which she is not at all responsible?

3) What is admirable about representing something (for which one is not at all responsible) by doing precisely nothing, except smiling blankly for the cameras?

4) Can a psychologically healthy people be made to "feel good about themselves" through the act of doing nothing?

5) Why is the act of making us feel good about ourselves a good thing?

6) Am I the only Canadian whose self-esteem is not enhanced by the “graceful” passivity—the mere existence, in effect—of Michaëlle Jean?

Peter Burnet said...

A few responses:

1. That a first generation Canadian from the poorest parts of the world can be welcomed and celebrated as a national symbol;

2, 3. Mr. Chairman, I would like to defer those questions to Her Majesty;

4. Of course, what do you imagine the basis of monastic life to be?

5. For much the same reason as giving food to a starving person is a good thing, even though one may risk reinforcing his bitterness and dependancy.

6. Undoubtedly not. There are plenty of other alpha male types around whose self-esteem demands more concrete inspirations, like successfully building an Internet porn company or rowing a boat across the ocean.

Sir Francis said...

1. That a first generation Canadian from the poorest parts of the world can be welcomed and celebrated as a national symbol...

Being appointed by a widely loathed prime minister does not equate to being "welcomed" and "celebrated".

What I welcome and celebrate is the creditable career that Jean had built for herself before she was elevated into official redundancy. That is her immigrant success story, not her current patronising tokenism.

...what do you imagine the basis of monastic life to be?

That's not a wise quip to make to a Catholic. ;)

Monastic life is, in fact, an extremely active daily devotion to prayer and service, as you are no doubt aware.

5. For much the same reason as giving food to a starving person is a good thing...

The analogy eludes me. I might be tempted to feel good about myself after feeding the hungry; I'm at no risk of feeling good about myself merely because the representative of my head of state is an expensive constitutional cypher with good hair and teeth.

There are plenty of other alpha male types around whose self-esteem demands more concrete inspirations...

...like living in a nation that takes its constitution (and itself) seriously, for the first time in a generation.

Peter Burnet said...

SF, I really don't want your excellent work to descend into an exchange of barbs, no matter how good natured, but I must close with two final ripostes:

A) I'm sorry if you thought I would think it cool if we just chose a pretty face in the arrivals lounge at Pearson as a soul salve for historical sins, but I assumed Ms. Jean's previous accomplishments are just taken for granted. Given the changing demographic of Canada and what is going on in much of the rest of the world, I have absolutely no problem risking accusations of tokenism in matters likely to inspire new Canadians;

b) Monastic life is, in fact, an extremely active daily devotion to...

If you open your window and listen carefully, you might hear rumblings of the same defence coming from the direction of Rideau Hall.

Sir Francis said...

I really don't want your excellent work to descend into an exchange of barbs...

That’s odd. I've always found myself disposed to think of my "excellent work" as being an "exchange of barbs".

I have absolutely no problem risking accusations of tokenism in matters likely to inspire new Canadians...

The problem is that tokenism is never inspiring; it's demoralising. Only achievement (which Jean represents despite her appointment, not in consequence of it) is inspiring.

If you open your window and listen carefully, you might hear rumblings coming from the direction...of Rideau Hall.

I hear those rumblings even with my windows closed, my dear Peter. I blame it not on any "defence", but on the too-rich canapés for which Government House chefs are notorious and which, I admit, I do covet.

Robert Ede said...

Sir,
I've not read the whole thread - impatient that I am - but am overjoyed to find a discussion on electing the GG.
IMHO 'tis the only solution and I am glad to find like-minded souls.

May I be so bold to suggest my "plain language version" of the BNA/Constitution 1867-1982 to further discussion

http://robertede.blogspot.com/2006_05_31_robertede_archive.html

As for my suggestion about election of GG:
1) Hold election every-other General election

2) use single transferable ballot (no run off)

3) suggest 2/3rds be the 'magic number' ( I loathe 50%+1 for anything)

4) have term start 365 days after the return of the writs - warm-up, phase-in

5)use Senate property-ownership and net-worth qualification/disqualification standards ..... but adjust the 1867 $4000 amount to current dollars (s/be 60 times to 80times )

6) retain Queen as titular head (see HRH's proclamation link below) and I believe a constitutional amendment is not required (never get 100% agreement everywhere, anyway)

7) as per HRH procl. do a "deemed disposition" of Crown of Canada's Treasury's financial and non-financial assets and sovereignty-in-Canada to the collective Citizenry. Again not one piece of letterhead need to changed to any office (i'm pretty sure)

8) Reverse Order in Council PC 1940-1121 and sever the Offices of Clerk of Privy Council from the Office of Secretary to the Cabinet - give the Privy Council back to the GG. many ref.s on by blog "walk a Kb or 2 in my Mocassins"

Thanks

HRH Proclamation
http://robertede.blogspot.com/2008_11_09_archive.html

Sir Francis said...

Robert:

Thanks for that detailed précis. There's plenty of food for thought there.

From the comments I've triggered with this post, though, it has become clear to me (clearer to me, rather) that our primary task is that of overcoming the stand-pat inertia that has gripped even the most politically aware among our countrymen. All the good ideas in the world are useless if people are perfectly willing to live with the degrading effects of bad ones.

What we need most urgently is a way to get people off their civic asses, or, alternatively, a Lieutenant-Colonel in command of one of our more well-equipped regiments who's willing to march on Ottawa and superintend an enlightened despotism long enough to shove some constitutional medicine down our throats. I'm getting to the point of preferring the latter option, frankly.

Dylan said...

SF, great post. I'd be willing to put my name on this petition with a few reservations. However, I do believe that you raise some important points that would strengthen the post of GG given the quagmire that is the existence of a myriad of "conventions" of certain constitutional practices within our Canadian political system.

First, I believe that a short-list of (truly) non-partisan candidates who have expertise with the constitution and Canadian law ought to be one of the highest priorities of any GG. I also believe it ought to be the duty of a mulit-partisan parliamentary committee to put forward this short list.

However, the question of putting these candidates on a national STV ballot could make the first two processes moot. First, I wonder what motivation it would be for any Canadian to vote for their GG out of a list of no-name constitutional lawyers? What would make one different from the other? Ethnicity? Province of origin? Age? Gender?

Language would be a huge issue and I believe the chance of a francophone candidate being elected would be slim in a national election. These candidates would have to run on some sort of platform that would be inherently aligned with one of the major federal parties. One party leader would eventually endorse one candidate over another and the rest of the parties would select a candidate of "their" own, regardless of the non-affiliation of any of the candidates.

A de-politicized election, where federal parties are barred from endorsing a candidate and candidates barred from holding membership in a federal party, would be dry, boring, and ultimately - I suspect - call into question the need for a GG more so than now.

I believe putting a criterion on candidates able to be selected by a parliamentary committee for the PM's endorsement to the Crown for approval is the best way to move forward on the "GG question."

That said, I'd go further in point 4, making it a requirement of the PM to appoint one of the three parliamentary candidates as to avoid the appointment of a sympathetic loyalist in extraordinary circumstances.

Ti-Guy said...

Are you still alive, Sir Francis? I'm hoping this pretentious, self-indulgent and entirely pointless post will be replaced soon by a fresh, invigorating one, where you return to the One Big Idea that should be uniting all Canadians: how to detach ourselves from the Titanic known as America.

liberal supporter said...

GREETINGS, Sir Francis!

WHEREAS you have not put in an appearance in over two months, and whereas the blogosphere is a less interesting place without you,

NOW THEREFORE THIS IS TO COMMAND YOU to appear before the assembled readers in a new post.

We trust there is no shortage of material to write about.